By Kim Young-jin
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt was treated like a "rock star" on a visit to North Korea last week, the head of his delegation, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said Saturday.
Such treatment referred to the level of interest in Schmidt on the tightly-controlled visit, despite ongoing questions over the timing of the travel in the wake of Pyongyang's Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch.
"Eric Schmidt was like a rock star there, talking to people, to students to scientists, to software engineers about the importance of the Internet," Richardson told CNN. "I think it is important that we not isolate the North Koreans."
The former U.S. official said the "private, humanitarian" mission had three goals: to urge the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to refrain from nuclear weapons testing; to check on an American detained there; and encourage greater openness to information.
The U.S. State Department warned before the trip that it was ill-timed as Washington was pushing for international punishment for the rocket launch. Richardson said the concern was merited but argued that it was time to engage.
"I am worried that we are headed toward a confrontation with the North Koreans feeling isolated," he said, adding that the regime may move toward diplomacy if Kim feels he "established his domestic strength" through the successful launch.
For some, however, the high visibility of the trip raised the possibility that the regime would use it as propaganda fodder.
While Richardson stressed the private nature of the trip, the North's state media portrayed it as a "delegation from Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State." Some analysts said while this could make the visit seem more impressive to high-ranking officials at a time when Kim Jong-un is pushing science and technology as a growth engine.
Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group said such trips carry political risks that should be weighed.
"As private citizens they have that liberty to travel. On the other hand these guys are public figures and their status makes them potential propaganda tools," he said.
Upon return Richardson said he received assurances that the detainee, Kenneth Bae, was in good health and that judicial proceedings against him would soon start.
Previous U.S. politicians such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have made successful private trips to the North to retrieve Americans detained there, who analysts say are used as political bargaining chips to meet with prominent figures.
While Schmidt said he warned the regime that its information blockade would stunt economic development, Pinkston said such comments were very unlikely to be carried by the North Korean press.
The analyst pointed to Clinton's 2009 trip to Pyongyang, during which he negotiated the release of two American journalists as an example. Clinton brought along his personal physician when he met with late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who had suffered a stroke the previous year, potentially gaining insight on the dictator's health.
Pinkston said the North, by not releasing Bae to the high-profile visitors, sent a signal both internally and to the outside world.
"The message is that anything (Pyongyang) perceives to be subversive to the state, whether you bring in a Bible or information, you will pay the consequences," he said.
The North has cracked down on the populace under the Kim Jong-un regime and Seoul says the number of defectors has dropped significantly due to tightened border controls.
최근 북한을 다녀온 빌 리처드슨 전 멕시코주지사는 북한측이 에릭 슈미트 구글 회장을 열렬하게 환영했으며, 북한이 불가측하고 호전적이긴 하지만 그럴수록 대화가 필요한 상대라는 점을 재차 강조했다.
리처드슨 전 주지사는 11일(현지시간) CNN 방송에 출연, '슈미트 회장은 북한에서 록스타였다'면서 '북한주민들과 학생들, 과학자들, 소프트웨어 기술자들과 만나 인터넷의 중요성에 대해 얘기했다'고 말했다.
슈미트 회장 일행은 이번 방북을 통해 미사일 발사 잠정중단(모라토리엄), 억류돼있는 미국인 케네스 배씨에 대한 인도적인 대우 촉구, 그리고 폐쇄사회인 북한의 대외개방과 인터넷과 휴대전화 개방 등의 필요성을 역설했다고 리처드슨 전 주지사는 전했다.
그는 '북한을 고립시키지 않는 게 중요하다고 생각한다'고 역설했다. 비록 북한이 최소 6기 정도의 핵무기를 갖고 있고 140만명의 무장병력을 보유하고 있으며 불가측하고 호전적인 집단이라고 하더라도 '그들과 대화를 하는 것이 더 나은 선택'이라고 말했다.
리처드슨 전 주지사는 이번에 김정은 북한 노동당 제1비서를 만나지는 못했다면서도 북한이 최근 도입한 경제정책 등을 보면 김정은이 개혁에 우호적인 인물이라고 말했다.
미국 국무부는 슈미트 회장과 리처드슨 전 주지사의 방북을 부정적인 시각으로 보고 있지만 미국 내에서는 경색돼 있는 북미 관계에서 긍정적인 효과가 있을 것이라는 평가도 나오고 있다.
앞서 뉴욕타임스(NYT)는 슈미트 회장 일행의 방문은 북한을 이롭게 할 것이라고 전했지만 일부 전문가 사이에서는 가치 있는 비공식 외교였다는 의견도 있다고 설명했다.